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Jeff Sessions’ war on weed is deeply unpopular

Plenty of people who don't think pot should be legal also think this is dumb policy.

People stand in line to get into MedMen, one of the two Los Angeles area pot shops that began selling marijuana for recreational use under the new California marijuana law on January 2, 2018. CREDIT:
 Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
People stand in line to get into MedMen, one of the two Los Angeles area pot shops that began selling marijuana for recreational use under the new California marijuana law on January 2, 2018. CREDIT: Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

When President Donald Trump abandoned his campaign vow to keep the federal government out of state experiments with marijuana legalization last week, he stepped into a political bear-trap.

Just 23 percent of voters support federal interference with state legalization, according to a new Quinnipiac poll conducted in the four days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions changed Justice Department policy in the hopes that his prosecutors will start attacking legal pot. A full 70 percent of respondents oppose the move — an even higher figure than the 58 percent who support legalizing weed outright.

The change Sessions made is unlikely to have widespread tangible impact, as a range of policy experts and cannabis company owners told ThinkProgress at the time. The old guidance he revoked still left federal prosecutors free to pursue cases against state-licensed cannabis firms and employees where they saw fit, but discouraged them from going after states and firms that adhered to a list of conditions such as preventing legal pot from getting into kids’ hands.

But while Sessions’ move is only a saber-rattle in policy terms, it is a clear signal politically. The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts has already taken up Sessions’ call, for instance, in refusing to give lawmakers and business owners clarity on enforcement questions surrounding that state’s still-forming marijuana market.

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But among voters, there is no practical constituency for Sessions’ ideological drive to punish pot users. The same poll found just 6 percent of the country opposes legalization for medical use, and just 36 percent opposes full adult-use recreational legalization. Even among Republicans, Sessions is underwater. Just 42 percent of respondents from his own party support federal interference in state marijuana legalization of the sort his memo encourages. Forty-seven percent of Republicans oppose the move.

Pot is in good company here. Every other Republican policy position surveyed by Quinnipiac — whose sample included just 23 percent self-identified Republican voters and 38 percent Independents — also puts the party at odds with voters. Eight in 10 want undocumented immigrant “Dreamers” brought to the United States as children to be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship. Almost two-thirds of respondents oppose Trump’s border wall.

Fifty-two percent don’t like Trump’s tax law, which 66 percent of voters correctly identify as primarily benefiting already-rich people. Roughly six in 10 respondents don’t trust Trump to handle North Korea — the same proportion that say Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election meddling and solicitation of contact with the Trump campaign is being conducted fairly.

These are self-inflicted political wounds across a broad spectrum of policies. Republican leaders Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Paul Ryan (R-WI) made a big show of embracing Trump personally last weekend at Camp David, pledging an ambitious 2018 agenda to match their many dark accomplishments in 2017.

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If they think they’re going to lose the House in November anyway given Trump’s deep unpopularity, they may decide to push against the political winds even further to get things done before their current apex power in Washington wanes.

But that’s not the only approach. And if reports this week from senior GOP sources are to be believed, it’s not the one currently in favor.

Instead, leadership is pitching an elegantly simple solution to the problem of having policy ideas most Americans hate. GOP leaders simply intend to do next to nothing all year, according to reports Thursday in Politico.